Unlike Gillian Robespierre’s preceding debut feature Obvious Child, Landline isn’t likely to inspire any think pieces about hot-button topical issues and thus distract us from the filmmaker’s more modest strengths. Abortion may have been what drove much of the conversation around that earlier film, but putting aside one’s own personal feelings about its main character’s decision to abort her unborn child—a decision Robespierre treated with a casualness that some considered politically radical in its own quiet way—Obvious Child was essentially a standard-issue romantic comedy, albeit one with an amusing hot mess of a heroine at its heart, brought to charismatic life by Jenny Slate.
Slate is back and as much of a mess as ever in Landline, but she’s not the only troubled one in this more sprawling follow-up. It’s a classic dysfunctional family comedy-drama in many respects, with every single family member of the central Jacobs family dealing with some sort of personal trouble: older sister Dana (Slate) with misgivings about her engagement to Ben (Jay Duplass), which she channels into an affair with an old college friend, Nate (Finn Wittrock); younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) with a rebellious nature that leads her into all-night clubbing and increasingly adventurous drug use; and their on-the-outs parents, Pat (Edie Falco) and Alan (John Turturro), the stagnation of their marriage only magnified when Ali discovers her father indulging in his own philandering.
All of this interpersonal intrigue is given a bit of freshness with its setting. Taking place in 1995, Landline is, in fact, a period piece, and Robespierre and co-screenwriter Elisabeth Holm aren’t shy about letting fly with the cutesy ’90s references: timely soundtrack needle-drops, shout-outs to popular TV shows of the time (Mad About You and Helen Hunt’s supposedly very visible camel toe gets a privileged mention), scenes set in long-gone New York City nightclubs and record stores. Depending on how nostalgic you are for that time period, Robespierre’s own rosy-colored perspective will either charm or exasperate.
Slightly more worrying is how essentially familiar much of the drama is. As much as Robespierre infuses the dramatic material with her own comic sensibility—proudly vulgar at times, but always keyed to these particular characters—Landline doesn’t always escape a sense that, for all the occasional well-observed details, we’ve explored this kind of familial territory many times before, and more insightfully. For all the energy these performers bring to their parts, these characters don’t always feel distinctive enough to inspire much more than superficial involvement in their tribulations.
Still, Robespierre’s heart is in the right place. Hers is a humane vision that refuses to cast easy judgment on her deeply flawed characters, never excusing them for their unwise decisions, but understanding the inner anguish from which they arise. And while Landline portrays characters grappling in their own ways with the age-old institution of marriage and the expectations of monogamy it creates, Robespierre isn’t cynical about romantic relationships, recognizing the need for constant companionship, while acknowledging the at-times-agonizing difficulties in sustaining them over a long period of time. If anything, she may be a bit too beholden to such relatively conservative norms. After Dana finally spills the beans to Ben about her affair with Nate, her desperation to win him back can’t help but feel like a bit of a regression. And yet, Dana’s arc is offset to some degree by those of the other major female characters; even Pat gets a sequence in which she goes out to a bar on her own and tries to flirt with other men, in an attempt to try to resuscitate a marriage that has long run its course. Compared to Obvious Child, Landline feels not only bigger and broader in scope, but also messier. However,in this case, it’s a bracing kind of messiness, reflective of characters, and possibly even a filmmaker, honestly reckoning with the challenges that come with growing, aging, questioning their own preconceived notions and becoming more aware of themselves.
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Writer: Elisabeth Holm & Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate, Jay Duplass, Abby Quinn, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Finn Wittrock
Release Date: July 21, 2017
Kenji Fujishima contributes film criticism to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and Village Voice in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.